Thursday, August 30, 2007

Last Day in Bolivia

Yesterday I had a taxi driver only on the job five days and not yet jaded by the endless queue of passengers. He told me about a festival for the Holy Child that would be taking place in a small town this weekend. He was planning to go and urged me to consider it, saying it would be a beautiful sight.

A call came in from the dispatcher, ordering his taxi to his mother’s house. I laughed.

“Is your mother your customer?” I asked.

“She makes empanadas and when someone wants a delivery of empanadas, I transport them,” he said. “If you ever want a wonderful empanada, you should try hers. She’s been making them for 27 years.”

I had a busy day yesterday, finishing up my work and all the errands I wanted to finish in Santa Cruz. It was better to be busy than not though, as I’d reached the point where I was just counting the hours until my departure. In the evening, several of my colleagues took me out to dinner – a delicious meal of fried yucca pieces with various sauces, a chicken breast in cheese sauce, vegetables and potatoes. My Spanish teacher Oscar gave me our first baby blanket – a soft, pretty yellow blanket with a little arc full of animals on it.

The light was soft and gentle when I left this morning, the sun rising from a mottled sky, the palm trees on the way to the airport waving in the light breeze. There were no blockages, no protests, just the quiet normality of a city getting ready to go to work.

Overall, the city and the country have been good to me. I’ve met a lot of kind people and have generally had good experiences over the last five months. However, the country hasn’t taken a hold on my heart the way Kyrgyzstan did. It was painful to leave the land and the people of Kyrgyzstan as I felt it had become a part of me. Here, I remained a visitor, someone here temporarily. I was glad to have a final chance to spend time with colleagues. But I don’t have a connection with the land. And rather than with regret, I leave happily, eager to start a new adventure in the U.S., happy for the first time in years to be able to set up a home and family, however short-term it may be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stroll Through a Strike Zone

It’s 6 p.m. and as the sun fades pink against the horizon, the city wakes up. Even though the strike was for 24 hours, and shouldn’t end until midnight, everyone seemed to know that one evening came, the restaurants would open back up, the cars return to the road. The bicyclists head home after enjoying a day of unique freedom. The hum of cars fills the air again. The silence pill has dissolved.

From my seventh floor room, I had a nice view of how things were developing throughout the day. From morning on, occasional sounds of firecrackers and little plumes of smoke would come from the city center. I imagined what it must be like to live in a city at war – to hear the crackle of gunfire, to be unaffected as long as its far enough away.

One of my roommates went to work early this morning, before the blockades were put into place. She was picked up and brought home by the company car.

“Nothing’s open,” she said. “Not the supermarkets, no stores, no restaurants.” She said there was a large blockage when she returned to the apartment, at the fourth ring. But that they were able to find alternate routes around it.

In the morning, there were a couple of cars, a few private taxis, and some vehicles with green and white Santa Cruz flags flying from their windows. Were they “authorized” cars, who brought the blockades to their jobs. Or were they the ones assigned to make sure no one else moved around?

Despite a bit of traffic, I saw four tourists, hauling large suitcases and giant backpacks, making their way by foot up my street. I wondered how one would warn a visitor who didn’t speak the language about a general strike the next time. I imagined them arriving by an evening bus, and finding themselves in a still and quiet city of 1.5 million.

From an early hour, people were out walking, and they quickly made the roadways theirs. I watched a father push a child in a car-stroller, casually sauntering down the middle of a lane. More and more bicycles emerged and they especially liked the street in front of my apartment building, which has eight lanes divided into four sections of two each. It’s long and smooth and for once, was empty.

A few blocks away, I watched them set up a minor roadblock. First it was a car put in the middle of the road. This was more of an inconvenience than anything, as most were able to drive or maneuver around it. I wonder who volunteers to let their cars be used as blockage objects, and why the large numbers of people who are being blocked by a few don’t ram their cars into the one in the middle of the road.

Around 11, a more substantial roadblock was set up, with small piles of roads and bricks spread across the road. A car blocked half the road, a green banner and a Santa Cruz flag the rest. There weren’t a lot of people manning this blockage though, and no firecrackers at this point. I saw some bicyclists pause as they approached, then turn around. Others moved forward and were able to get through along the edges. Some cars found a way through, others turned around. I saw motorcycles and four-wheelers push up the curb and drive on the sidewalk to get by. But by this time, few cars were out and the world belonged to the bicyclists.

My roommates told me the members of the Civic Committee – those who declared the strike – were pressured do to their employment to participate and to enforce the roadblocks. I don’t feel like there is a strong public sentiment that moving the capital to Sucre is an important, immediate concern. So the few people in charge of the roadblock near my house had already gone home by the time my roommates and I went out for a walk later in the afternoon.

We walked randomly, probably a mile-long circle. We passed a casual roadblock or two – small streets blocked off with a couple of tree branches and rocks. But what we saw a lot more of was people having a really nice time – flying down the streets on their bicycles, bright-faced and smiling. Families walking their babies, pushing the strollers down the center of a lane. Kids playing soccer, people walking, or gathering on street corners.

My roommate Juanita, from La Paz, looked enviously at the bicyclists. “I wish I knew where I could rent one. I haven’t been on a bike in so long.”

My other roommate, a mother of a two year old who has left her child for the first time on this 11-day business trip, spoke endlessly of childbirth and childrearing.

When we returned, we went to the top floor of our building to look at the swimming pool. There, one of our co-workers, who apparently lives there, opened the door. He was bleary eyed from an evident nap.

It’s an interesting experience to have nowhere to go, nothing to do, all day. And for the entire city to be in the same situation. Yet, unlike a warzone, to know that despite the social tensions, there aren’t any serious conflicts going on. It seemed to give people the chance to sleep, relax, get some fresh air, and spend time with family. I think if they could ban cars once a month, on a weekend day to not disturb work, it would make for a much happier and healthier city.

Babies from multiple partners and fighting back against road blockages

Last night I took a taxi from work into the center of the city. My driver, Leo, was a talkative man and since traffic was heavy at that hour, we had quite a bit of time together. Suddenly, he let out a big yawn.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

“Yes. I work until ten, but I’m tired already.” It was shortly before eight. “The thing is I have a three-month old baby and he doesn’t let me sleep, crying all night.”

I congratulated him.

“I actually have two children, both born on the same day, May 6th. One is from my wife and one is from my second woman. I certainly didn’t plan to have two, but my boys are really beautiful, really special. One was born at 11 a.m. and the other at 8 p.m.” I wondered how he arranged the logistics of that.

His chubby face fell into a reverie as the images of his baby sons appeared in his mind. He didn’t even seem to think it strange at all to admit to his foreign passenger that he has two women, or two babies that may or may not know about their brother.

I had to stock up on food last night since stores and restaurants will be closed until this evening. Early this morning, around 6:30, I saw a couple of cars driving around. That might be early enough to be safe, before the blockaders get out of bed. A little after seven I heard the first firecrackers going off. And now, shortly after 8, I hear only an occasional car going by. I expect it will stay that way until the late afternoon, when people will start to reopen and try to recoup the income they lost during the day. As long as the strikers prevent a full day of normal business operations, they will probably be satisfied. The government estimated that the strike, taking place in six regions across Bolivia today, will prevent the exchange of $20 million.

People seem to accept the limitations on their freedom with surprising passivity. Yesterday, while returning from Samaipata in a taxi, I told the driver I’d read that in a national road blockage, the population only rose up against those blocking the roads in two places. One of them was Samaipata, a small mountain town.

“Yes,” he said. ‘They are afraid to block the roads near Samaipata now. When they do, we all go out, as an entire community – men and women and children, all carrying sticks. And we get rid of them.”

He told me how the church bells are used as a means of announcing community information. “Usually, when they ring, the children rung to the square to find out who has died, or what has happened. But when they ring urgently, as they do when there is a road blockage, the adults gather.”

I’d also read that it wasn’t so easy, that some citizens were severely injured. However, it seemed to have been a good investment for the community. Now, unlike much of the country, they are free from being trapped within their town. But today, even my driver who shuttles passengers between Samaipata and Santa Cruz, will be sitting at home. He hasn’t been able to stop the strikes in the big city.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

El Fuerte

Today was a cold, drizzly, windy day – the kind of day that’s perfect for curling up indoors with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. I did find two cups of hot chocolate, and luxuriate in the warmth of Tuscany in my book Under the Tuscan Sun. But I also took a half-day tour of the nearby El Fuerte ruins, one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bolivia.

It’s only nine kilometers away, at the summit of a mountain, but the going was rough. On the way out of town, the driver stopped at a store to buy shampoo. “So the window won’t fog,” he said. “It’s a secret trick among drivers.”

It did keep the window from fogging, but it also streaked the inside of the window, so viewing was still difficult. We headed up a dirt road that had turned to mud from the drizzle. We crossed a river, continued uphill, then drove over rock. We were among the first to make it up. An SUV in front of us turned around partway. When we left an hour or two later, we saw many cars stopped part of the way up, or turning around in defeat.

Our guide, Erica, took us along the path through the pre-Incan ruins. The area was beautiful. Unfortunately, the fog and mist prevented us from seeing more than 10-20 meters ahead. When we climbed the overlooks, we could see only what was right below us. The photographic sites were, for us, just a collection of mist off the edge of a mountain. From what I’ve heard and seen in photos, the views are supposed to be spectacular. But I imagined they had misty days centuries ago as well. And I could try to visualize what it would have been like to live there and see a scantily dressed warrior with a bow and arrow emerge along the misty jungle path.

Though conditions were less than ideal, it was still interesting to see. It was unique compared to other ruins I’ve seen in that the highlight was a giant, 200 by 60 meter sandstone rock, carved with jaguars, serpents, ceremonial circles and tombs.

I had my lunch in the Latina Café, a nicely decorated place with large windows looking out over the hills. I ordered the pollo milanesa and was surprised to see it was as big as a pizza, taking up the entire plate. They brought the sides in a separate dish.

I’m taken with the prevalence of natural and organic food here, so I stopped at the local market to see how much the local products reflected the finished goods sold so enthusiastically to tourists and to restaurants and grocery stores in Santa Cruz. The first thing that caught my attention were the green and brown eggs from sale, from criollo chickens. There was a full and colorful selection of fresh vegetables overflowing wicker baskets – lettuce, spinach, carrots, peppers, radishes, and herbs.

Erica told me that now should be high tourist season, due to the European summer vacation. But they have less visitors than they’d expect. “Bolivia has a lot of problems,” she said. What amazes me though is how many Europeans cross the world and the ocean to get here, yet so few Americans know about it or make the trip. Samaipata is a wonderful little retreat – a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or to explore the surrounding ruins, national parks, or a giant, ancient fern forest that I unfortunately haven’t been able to get to. I’d love to come back here for an extended time.

The cold prevented me from using my hammock or spending any unnecessary time outdoors. Even so, every time I went out, I breathed in the spicy, sweet scent of herbs, flowers and tropical trees. I purchased herbal teas, an herbal mix for pizza and a rhubarb compote. But I wish I could somehow bottle the scent of the air and take some home with me.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Return to Samaipata

I’m extremely content right now. I have my own little house with a gate (called La Casita) and I’m currently sitting in a hammock, with my laptop on my thighs. I look out at vines, flowers and tropical trees. I smell herbs and flowers. I hear thunder, the rustling wind, and someone whistling to a dog.

It was so hot in Santa Cruz this morning it was almost uncomfortable. I took a shared taxi, that took an hour to fill up and cost just over $3 per passenger. I was happy to have a good driver and a comfortable ride. On the way, we passed a dance troupe and band, similar to those that performed in Cochabamba, walking down the side of the road. The dancers wore heavy red and gold costumes, with bells built into the men’s shoulders. Despite the heat and the sweat, they smiled, wiggled and blew into their heavy brass instruments.

We traveled along the old road to Cochabamba, driving under sheer rock faces, occasionally looking up for pending avalanches. As we followed the edge of a cliff over a river and winded around the mountain turns, we drove through a dense conglomeration of greenery, flowers, rocks and birds. I felt dwarfed by the nature, impressed by our insignificance.

Samaipata was quiet, but still looked the same as before – the dirt streets calm, the central, cobblestoned streets lit up by the stones, sculptures and greenery of the central square. Carefully built homes stood next to small, mud structures. Cacti grew around both types of residences, a natural art form. I noticed the signs throughout town – fresh bread, ice cream, homemade cheeses. This is a really unique town in that people seem to compete with each other to produce the most natural, healthy and organic foods. It’s a culinary paradise, set amidst a cool, flowering tropical mountain setting.

I began my culinary experience at Landhaus, a German owned hotel and restaurant. I enjoyed a meal fit for a king – pork medallions in a mushroom sauce, potato croquettes, green beans with grated cheese, vegetables, salad and homebaked rolls. This was accompanied by two bottles of mineral water and a slice of apple strudel with vanilla ice cream and sweetened cream sprinkled with cinnamon. Given the quality of the ingredients it was made with, it could easily have cost over $30 in the U.S. Here it was a mere $8. Even better, while eating, I got to watch the wind ripple the tropical trees and see a tortoise stroll by.

In the afternoon I came to my hotel, La Vispera, the place I stayed before. The hotel has a fully functioning organic farm and café, specializing in herbs and teas. I have a cabana, or a little house to myself. It has a hammock out front, where I can lie amidst the scent of fresh herbs and watch hummingbirds feed from nearby flowers.

I had pumpkin soup, cubes of gouda cheese, whole wheat rolls, and fruit tea delivered to my cabin for dinner. I could heat it up in my own little kitchen. Darkness fell at 6:15 and I moved inside, to my cozy little abode. I was struck by the silence, and by the feeling that my one-room space (that encompassed a double bed, a table and chairs, and a kitchen) was all I needed. I dreamed of returning here for an extended time with my family. Until then, I enjoyed the peace and the deliciously sweet air that surrounded me.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Upcoming General Strike

I read in the paper today that the regional assembly declared a 24-hour general strike for this coming Tuesday. From what I could understand, it’s in support of Sucre. Several regions will be joining in, paralyzing the majority of the country.

I called Maria to ask what that means. “There will be no transportation,” she said. “Neither government agencies, nor private companies will be working.”

“So we have the day off?”


It doesn’t do much good to have the day off when there is no transportation and you can’t go anywhere. I’m going to have to cancel the appointment I had for an ultrasound on Tuesday afternoon. That’s disappointing since I was looking forward to getting a good view of the baby for the first time. I hope it will be possible to reschedule before leaving. The same service of a 3D or 4D ultrasound that costs $25 here costs $400 in the U.S.

I asked one of my roommates why she thought the strike was being called.

“Every region wants to be independent, to manage its own resources,” she said.

“So Bolivia could become a bunch of miniature countries?”


I asked if there would truly be no transportation available during the strike. I
imagined some of the drivers must need the money.

“They make an agreement that anyone who is out driving will get attacked, will have their tires burned. So everyone stays home.” Guess I have no choice.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Samaipata, the mountain resort a few hours from Santa Cruz, where I’ll spend my last Bolivian weekend.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Political Problems

Although warm weather has returned, the winds haven’t died down, reaching up to 82 kilometers an hour today. As a result, sand swirls through the town. It’s common when driving in a taxi with the windows rolled down to suddenly get a whip of sand across the face.

Political problems relating to the location of the government continue in Sucre. I see the images on TV and in the newspaper – of lawmakers punching each other in a brawl, of police gassing protestors, of street hoodlums destroying property – but it seems like another world. It could be another country as much as I feel it here.

I asked my co-worker Julia what is going on there, because I find the newspaper stories so full of politics it’s difficult for me to decipher. She said that according to the constitution, the Bolivian capital is Sucre. Based on this, some people are demanding that the government should be located in the capital and move to Sucre. Practically, however, La Paz is the capital. She said these “constitutionalists” believe that La Paz has become too imperialistic, that the people there have too much power and whatever comes out of La Paz, the rest of the country has to follow.

I asked her what President Evo Morales’ position is.

“He has a strong base in La Paz, so he’d rather stay there,” she said.

“And what do the people in other parts of the country think?”

“They think it would be good to move the government to Sucre. It would reduce La Paz’s power and spread out the areas of influence in the country a bit more.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Final Days

It feels like winter is finally departing from Bolivia. It’s getting to the point where one can wear a sleeveless shirt all day long and be comfortable. Today I flew from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz and upon both embarking and disembarking, I felt the warm rays of the sun and felt as though I were in a tropical country. It’s too bad I’m leaving just as the nice weather returns. On the other hand, with no A/C or fan in my current apartment, maybe it’s a good time to go.

This morning, at my hotel in Cochabamba, a bevy of bodyguards in black suits milled around the front door, looking at me suspiciously. I found out a Mexican musician, Anna Barbara, was in town to give a concert the next day. I’ve never heard of her, but I was told she sings ranchero music.

Upon leaving Cochabamba, I took in the view of the giant white Christ overlooking the city, the purple flowering jacaranda trees dropping their leaves, and the foul smell of a canal. I sat near the window on the plane and looked out over the dusty, brown mountainous city, then a landscape of bare brown mountains and scrubby matching homes that stretched until the flat, greener area of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is the same as usual – hectic, loud, dusty and though now warmer, still windy. I noticed some new graffiti among the usual anti-Evo material. This one reads (with a large E, V, O):

(In Venezuela I obey), referring to what anti-Evo people consider his bowing to Venezuelan leader Chavez.

Today I read the second report within just a few weeks of illegal Ethopians and Eritreans caught in Bolivia. In the first case, a group of immigrants was found in a house near my original apartment. I wondered why they’d choose to emigrate to Bolivia, especially since I almost never see an African here. Today’s newspaper article said they are using Bolivia as an entry point to the U.S. and Canada.

For what seems like weeks now, the newspapers have been full of stories of protests and conflict in Sucre. I could never quite understand what was going on. So today I asked my taxi driver. He said that people in Sucre wanted the governing bodies moved to Sucre.

Idiotically, I asked why. “The capital is in La Paz isn’t it?” I asked.

“No, it’s Sucre.”

I’ve lived here five months and didn’t realize the capital was Sucre. In all practical senses, La Paz is the capital, with the government, business, and airlines centered there. So understandably, Sucre wants a change. If they could get the government to relocate, maybe they’d get some more recognition.

My taxi driver didn’t think it would happen. “The people in La Paz feel just as strongly about it staying,” he said.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


On Sunday, I continued my adventure in Villa Tunari. I hired a taxi to take me to the Carrasco National Park. I’d heard that the Chapare region was Bolivia’s prime cocaine-growing area, but only on the way to the park did I realize it. My driver stopped on the way to buy a bag of coca leaves (for 25 cents). We passed by small village households actively drying coca leaves in the sun in their front yards. When I stopped to take a picture and said hello, I received a gruff response.

Conservation International implemented what seems to have been a successful project, training locals to serve as guides in the park. Visitors are taken on an easy 2.5 kilometer loop. First, we crossed a river in a cable car, which was an exciting way to enter. Then we walked along a path, looking at jungle wildlife along the way. Our destination was two caves – one that held a variety of bats, the other the unique guacharo bird. This nocturnal bird is very aggressive and at the sound of our approach, they began to squack, filling the dark cave with audible anger. Our guide, Juan, told us that the man who originally found the cave thought there were wild cats inside. He was so afraid by the sounds that he didn’t approach too closely, but came back the next day with someone else.

Villa Turani is known for its fish – fresh and delicious from the many surrounding rivers and streams. I enjoyed a piece of surabi, fresh from a streetside grill. Then I went back on the same mode of transport that had served me so well the previous day.

But this time it didn’t go so well. I should have been warned when I saw the driver picking his zits in the mirror when I entered. My arrival didn’t affect his work. Once we started moving, I had the strong sense something was wrong. He leaned forward and gripped the wheel in a strange manner. His head seemed somehow to be loose. He frequently bent over, and drove with only one hand. It took me a while to realize he was typing text messages onto a cell phone while he drove. His reactions to things in the road seemed impaired and when we stopped at a checkpoint, he yawned and stretched.

I thought he was going to fall asleep. I tried to reassure myself. Maybe he’s missing something upstairs, I thought. I’d had several similar drivers in Cochabamba. Maybe he’s worked long hours. But when I asked him, he said this was his first route of the day. Night was soon to fall and we were driving on mountainous roads. If he was having this much trouble in the daylight, how was he going to manage in the dark?

He illegally picked up another passenger on the side of the road and put him next to me. It seemed to be an acquaintance and he told this man he “was dying of sleep.” This passenger pulled out a bag of coca leaves and they both started to chomp. That, plus the music and the conversation seemed to help. But I still wasn’t reassured. And an hour after departing, when we reached the first place with some civilization (a police checkpoint), I got out. Even though it was already dark, I’d preferred to take my chances flagging down another bus than to risk flying over a cliff with this guy.

Luckily, I found another option quickly – a private citizen with a minivan who’d been vacationing with his son. He took passengers back to cover his gas expenses. He was an excellent driver and I could pass the rest of the journey relaxed, breathing in the scent of the coca leaves the elderly man next to me was busy chewing. It smelled like the dried piles of leaves I used to jump into at Halloween as a child.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Interesting Industries

I met some interesting people today. One was the owner of the largest children’s jeans factory in Cochabamba. I was able to see all the production stages – from cutting the fabric to embroidering the designs (done with a Chinese machine that entered the designs into a computer and simultaneously directed many needles to move along the same patterns), sewing the pants, putting on buttons, washing, ironing and packing. The production process has always fascinated me, seeing how a well-designed system of machines and people can create large quantities of goods in a short time.

I was surprised to see that a majority of those sewing were male, whereas in most developing countries I’ve visited, this tends to be a woman’s job.

“The men are better here,” my colleague, Fernando, said.

“People marry early here,” expected the factory’s accountant. “The wives are at home with the babies and the men are sewing to provide for their families.”

The factory has been struggling to find workers, with people leaving constantly to either set up shop independently, or more frequently, to emigrate overseas. Due to the worker shortage, they have started to use the service of small-scale independent sewers, who produce jeans according to their patterns in their own home.

Almost no one is paid over $100 a month. I asked why they didn’t consider raising wages in order to retain staff. The constant retraining has its cost.

“Our company pays more than the other companies in the area for this type of work,” the accountant told me. But they forget that in this climate, comparing themselves only with Cochabamban companies is a limited view. The workers are looking beyond Cochabamba – to Santa Cruz, Spain, and the U.S. for potential work. The local industries need to offer wages that, while lower than the other destinations, are high enough to incentivize the workers to stay in their home area and with their families.

I think this will happen, only slowly. Already, the use of small scale producers working at home allows those contractors more flexibility and independence, an improvement of conditions from a fixed salary within a factory setting.

In the afternoon I met a couple that is among the most impressive I’ve met in Bolivia. Originally from Brazil, they emigrated to Bolivia eight years ago with $100. They used that $100 to buy ingredients to make Brazilian chocolates, which they sold on the streets. They brought them to pastry shops, then rented a small 1x2 meter market stall. There they added a few other products and were soon selling over 1,000 items a day.

They took a loan for $100 to buy an oven. Later, they borrowed $1200 to buy a motorcycle. After that, they took out subsequent loans to buy a car, and then to build their house. Further loans helped them to open and expand their restaurants.

Today they have a restaurant with two outlets in Cochabamba and they want to open one more. They are also considering expanding to Santa Cruz. They have assets of several hundred thousand dollars, built up in a span of eight years. While other people with such assets live luxurious lives, this family spends no more than $300 a month.

“We eat all our meals at the restaurant, and just have a simple breakfast at home,” the wife said. “We don’t need much.”

“For five years, all our money went to the children,” the husband said. “We had two children with genetic diseases. We poured all of our money into tests and treatments, but they just remained like this – frozen.” He hunched his shoulders together and made a pained face.

“Five years we worked for them,” he said, and he began to cry. “The first one died in November, only two and a half years old. The next month, in December the next one was born.”

He wiped his tears away, his voice broken. He spoke with a thick Portuguese accent. His wife continued with a calm face. “The second one was born healthy and we thought everything was OK. But in the third month, it started to have trouble moving and it turns out it had the same disease. My husband and I are both part Jewish and we are both carriers. It’s a recessive gene, so if one has only one, they are OK. We have one daughter that is alright. But the other two got the gene from both of us.”

The second child also lived to be only 2.5 years old.

“They would have terrible, racking convulsions,” the father said. “And we were constantly doing tests – urine, blood – every week. Because they were always sick, but could only get antibiotics if it was bacterial. So we were spending $100-150 a week just doing tests.”

“We lived through hell,” the mother said, and she also wiped tears from her eyes. “But now we are able to focus on building something.”

“Your angels are in heaven now,” said my colleague Celia, a young woman who believes strongly in the virgin of Urkupina. She not only danced, but walked the 14 kilometers at three in the morning to show her faith.

“Yes, they are waiting for us,” the father said.

This restaurant works only at lunchtime because of a lack of staff. They used to have 21 employees and now have only 14.

“There are no workers available,” they told me. They are putting out adds to try to bring in workers from other neighborhoods. When I asked if they considered raising wages, they said they were probably going to do so.

They gave us a sample of the chocolates made with condensed milk, that set them upon the path to success and they were as rich and delicious as they claimed. Since they claim their food has no competition in Cochabamba, I’m going to have my final lunch in Cochabamba there tomorrow.

One other interesting event today is that I saw Evo Morales house – where he lived before he became President. The house itself isn’t visible because it has a gate overhung with bouganvilleas. But it’s clear that it’s not very tall, or it could be seen.

“It’s a very modest home in a modest neighborhood,” my colleague Fernando said.

It seemed someone was living there in his absence and I could see laundry hanging on the line. Across the street was a small but pleasant park with a little operating fountain.

“This park wasn’t here before he became President,” Fernando told me.

“A perk of the Presidency?” I asked.

“Yes, but actually, if you look around, they haven’t developed this neighborhood much at all. The road is still stone and hasn’t been paved.” He was right. It was a big contrast from the nice paved road that ran all the way to the remote birthplace of the Kyrgyz President. Evo Morales is definitely a unique character among world leaders.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Trip to Villa Tunari

I left town this weekend with some hesitation. I’ve been tired, I have a nice hotel in Cochabamba and I only have two weeks left in Bolivia. Did I really need to go off with a duffel bag on a long bus ride to who knows where? Yes, I decided. Because while I’m sure I’ll find my own adventures in the U.S., hanging out with wild animals and in the jungle won’t be among my options, especially for a weekend. I need to take advantage of the chance while I can.

So I headed to the street corner in Cochabamba where microbuses depart for Villa Tunari. I bought a ticket on a 7-passenger “special” bus for just over $3. The three-hour ride was surprisingly comfortable. The minivan was nice and the roads smooth and paved for most of the way. The scenery was also very enjoyable.

I jumped out at the Parque Machia, where there is a unique reserve for wild animals that have been rescued from captivity. I spent several hours talking with the dedicated staff and seeing the collection of monkeys, parrots, macaws, pumas and turtles among others they are trying to rehabilitate back into the wild.

Then I took a taxi to the Hotel El Puente, located a few kilometers outside of town. It’s on a hilltop overlooking a small river and has a series of natural pools nearby. It’s isolated, in the middle of the jungle. In that sense, it reminds me of my time in Buena Vista. But this place is better maintained. I have a comfortable little cabana with a window that takes up almost one whole wall. From the bed, I look out onto tropical green trees and plans and listen to the calls of various birds, one of which sounds like an arriving text message.

On the ride to Villa Turani, I’d been thinking of how hectic the past few months have been – filled with work, travel and major life changes. That pace seems likely to continue in the near future and I longer for some time with no responsibility and nothing to do.

I found it when I got to the hotel. I’d left my computer behind – so I could read, write by hand or sleep. Seeing the immensity of a whole book before me and having the time to read as much of it as I wanted was a shock for me. I barely knew how to handle the luxury.

Childhood memories of pouring over one book after another seem distant. Now it’s only thanks to audiobooks that I listen to while exercising, while in transit, or while doing chores, that I keep my reading up. A chapter or a few chapters of a paper book is a bedtime treat. The ability to continue reading on as long as I want to feels like a dip into my past.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Stop and Go

This evening I visited an interesting store. Called Stop & Go, it had a driveway running through it, kind of like a car wash. But either side was stocked with goods, from alcohol to butter, milk and yogurt, candy and gifts. Purchasers didn’t leave their cars, but told one of the employees what they wanted. They brought the order to the customer and collected the money, then watched them drive off. It seemed quite popular in the evening, as people picked up last-minute items on their way home from work. I thought it was a good idea, even faster than a convenience store.

The leadership of the Urcupina church doesn’t hesitate to link the religious festival with social, economic and political beliefs. Earlier in the week, they asked for national unity and integration and were disappointed when President Evo Morales didn’t respond. Yesterday they asked the virgin to look over migrants and their disintegrated families and blamed capitalistic and socialistic governments for not creating employment that could allow Bolivians to stay in their own country. According to the local paper, Los Tiempos, the parish of the sanctuary of Urkupina, Luis Saency, asked migrants to not forget their faith, to not destroy their families and to remember the education of their children. He also reminded the beneficiaries of remittances to be grateful for the assistance they receive.

While people brought photos of Bolivian migrants who had gone overseas to be blessed and remembered, many also brought figures of small suitcases as well as fake money, asking the virgin to fulfill their own dreams of migrating. They’d have the suitcase blessed, then look for a miner to extract a rock from the hillside. The larger the rock they extract, they believe, the greater will be the attention they’ll receive from the Virgin.

It’s understandable why so many people want to migrate. Salaries of 500-800 bolivianos a month ($63-100) are common in Cochabamba. The government has been unable to ensure that employers implement the labor standards enacted into law. I visited a pharmaceutical laboratory today, a professional operation with a strong capital base, that had all of its employees on a contract, rather than a permanent basis, as they should by law. This means they don’t receive the double salary they are entitled to by law in December. And should an employee become pregnant, she’d have a hard time getting her three month’s paid leave.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Child Labor

Today I had the chance to visit the owner of a small pasta factory in a town about an hour outside of Cochabamba.

We drove out of town, past small, earth-colored homes set upon dun brown hills. The starkness and lack of color reminded me of La Paz. We moved into an arid landscape. A green cactus lined the roads. My companion, Reynaldo, said it’s edible and delicious. We passed a polluted, but beautiful lake, lined with cafes and a hotel overlooking the mountainous panorama. A lot of new homes were being constructed along the roadside. These houses would look out over arid plains and towards the brown mountain ridges that rose in the distance. Reynaldo said the construction is spurred by remittances from Spain – emigrants sending money back to families to build new homes.

The pasta factory is owned by a 47-year-old man who has a university student as his “concubine.” They’ve been dating since 2000, but just starting living together six months ago. They already have two children.

“We were planning to get married this year,” Wilson said, “but she needs to finish her studies first.”

“Can one not study and get married at the same time?” I asked Reynaldo.

“It’s probably that he hasn’t made up his mind yet,” Reynaldo said. “If he marries her, she’ll own half of the business and he’s probably nervous about giving up any ownership.”

Wilson showed himself to be a very distrustful, jealous and avaricious man. He has a store, where he could sell his product. But it’s only open once a week because he doesn’t have time to manage both the factory and the store.

“Can’t you hire an employee to run it for you in your absence?” I asked him.

“No, you can’t trust anyone here. When people sell large quantities and they are taking in thousands of dollars, they begin to be careless and think that they can take some of that money. The owner across the street had an employee run off with $8,000. Then they use the money to emigrate to Spain or the U.S., so it’s really hard to do anything about it.”

But the store across the street works daily and the owner was not on site today. Clearly he makes enough of a profit that it’s still in his interest to operate, even with an occasional loss.

“Do you not have any family members or people you trust who you could hire?” Usually relatives can recommend a distant relative or friend that can be relied on. I myself hired someone who entered and cleaned my apartment in my absence, and had full access to all my belongings. I don’t believe that reliable workers don’t exist in Bolivia.

“No,” he said. “You can’t trust anybody.” He doesn’t even trust his family to touch any money, although they live on the factory site. If a customer wants to buy some noodles, they call him and he drives the hour there to make the sale himself.

I later asked Reynaldo, “If he were to pay someone an attractive salary, such as $200 a month, do you think they’d work honestly?”

“Yes,” Reynaldo said.

When we arrived at the site of the factory and his family’s home, we were greeted by giant guard dogs. “If we didn’t have these, the place would be overrun by thieves,” his mother said. She was an elderly woman, with a crooked row of gold teeth on the bottom and none on top. She wore a round hat and a worn blouse, apron and skirt over her heavyset body.

We weren’t allowed to see the factory itself. “Wilson is jealous and doesn’t let anybody at all go in there,” his sister said.

We did however see his employees, a group of young boys, carrying 50 kg bags of noodles from a porch into a storehouse. They were overseen by the elderly mother and by a handicapped brother. Both of them sat guard to make sure they didn’t steal anything.

“How old are they?” I asked the sister.

Her daughter, no more than 10 herself, immediately said, “18.”

They didn’t look it. I asked about the small one.

“One of them is 18, another 20, another 23,” the sister said.

I later approached the two smaller ones and asked their ages. One didn’t speak Spanish, but I found out they were 13 and 14. They earned 500 bolivianos (about $60) per month.

These boys live on the factory premises and seem to have nothing to look forward to professionally in life. I left the factory and the home with a terrible feeling. I’ve met plenty of Bolivians (and Kyrgyz) who earn thousands of dollars a month, yet see nothing wrong with paying their workers a pittance. And then they complain about not being able to trust their workers not to steal. But this was the first time I’d seen children and it really upset me.

Reynaldo and our driver, said the situation was pretty normal. “Those boys are just carting bags,” the driver said. “I’ve seen children forced into much more difficult and dangerous work.”

He said that while yes, the owner should be paying more (the minimum wage in bolivia is 800 bolivianos ($100) per month), one needed to think of what the alternative for the boys would be. “These kids come to town from the countryside to seek work. Many times they are sent by their parents. Their parents have a ton of kids and can’t maintain them. So it’s not so much a question of exploitation as survival.”

Then he relented, admitting that the need for survival created a situation in which people could easily be exploited. “Many people exploit these populations. Because they are so unsophisticated. They don’t know anything about their rights. The employers know that these people will never go complain to a labor office about their rights.”

On the drive back to Cochabamba, we passed a laguna on the edge of town, with a running/biking path around it. Seemed like a nice place for the community. But according to them, it’s not.

“All the drug addicts hang out around here,” they said. “There have been all kinds of violent crimes – not just robberies, but also rapes and even murders.”

Maria suggested I not visit the giant white statue of Christ on a nearby hilltop, even though it’s the tallest in the world. The cable car is under repair and it’s dangerous to walk, both because of feral dogs and because the isolation makes it a target for robbery.

In a book I’m reading by Isabel Allende, she quotes an InterAmerican Development Bank report as saying that Latin America is the second most violent area in the world, after Africa. My taxi driver yesterday claimed that Hispanic men in the U.S. could act aggressively because they are separated from their families – that it’s the spouse and children that help control the aggression. Yet Allende writes of widespread domestic violence. Where does it originate from? How can it be eliminated? Finding answers to such questions would make the world an immeasurably better place.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Urkupina dances and a conversation with an illegal immigrant

During my two-hour lunch break, I took a taxi to the neighboring town of Quillacollo, where today marked the beginning of the week-long festival of the Virgen de Urcupina. This is a major celebration, not just locally, but also attracting visitors from around the country. It was a bit hard for me to understand when I arrived why people got so excited about a virgin, why they took a whole week to celebration it, and why Thursday would be a local holiday, with people excused from work. But in the past few days, I’m understanding it as a combination of faith, hope, and an excuse to have a good time.

The story is that a peasant girl was feeding her sheep on this hill when she was approached by a woman with a boy in her arms. They had a long conversation and the woman promised to return. She did return to this child several other times. Though the girl thought this occurrence natural, when the elders in her community learned about it, they went to inform their neighbors in Quillacollo. They told the girl to tell them immediately the next time the woman appeared. The next time she appeared, the girl ran to tell her parents and they hurried to tell people in Quillacollo. When the people arrived at the indicated place, they saw the beautiful woman they knew was the virgin. As the virgin rose into the air from the place she was sitting, the girl pointed up at her and shouted “There is she, in the hill.”

People can ask the virgin for favors and they make promises as a sign of their faith. A common promise is to pledge to dance in the festival and/or make the pilgrimage for three years in a row. On the first full day of the celebration, all the dance groups, called fraternities, enter the town in a parade that lasts the entire day. Members have to pay for elaborate costumes, costing up to $300-400, and these may only be used for one year.

When I arrived, it was midday and the temperature reached 31 degrees Celsius. I walked along a street packed with people and filled with vendors – selling hats, sunglasses and drinks, as well as bras, sponges and mirrors. I breathed in the sweet smell of fried chicken, cotton candy, and sliced watermelon and pineapple.

One needs to arrive early, and pay, to get a seat in the bleachers. So I joined the others without the money or time for a good seat, and peered through the spaces in the bleachers. The dancers came by – men, women and children, young, middle-aged and elderly – in colorful costumes. Many of them were full length and heavy. My colleague Celia said they could weigh up to 50 kilograms. Some looked exhausted and drank water while sweat ran down their faces. Others ignored the suffering and shouted with enthusiasm, their suffering a welcome part of their sacrifice to the virgin.

The onlookers looked happy and upbeat, surrounded by music and food. I saw that no matter how seriously one took the virgin story, it was an excuse for the community to unite, to create something fun and beautiful.

On my way back to Cochabamba, I had a fascinating discussion with my taxi driver, Fernando. He spent two years in the U.S. as an illegal alien and just returned to Bolivia this past December. He lived in northern Virginia and worked at odd jobs, such as painting, or maintenance, for $7 an hour.

“It’s a difficult time now to be an illegal immigrant in the United States,” he said. “I felt my future is not there so I decided to come back.”

He told me about his difficult entry, how he paid $2500 to a coyote to take them across the border. He traveled in a group of ten, eight men and two women.

“We had to cross the river naked and carry our clothing over our heads. These women were so determined to get there that they didn’t even have any shame in removing all their clothing.”

He told me they walked for 1.5 days and had a single gallon of water to share among the 10 of us. I asked him what the relations were like among the group. “At the beginning, we tried to help each other, especially the women. They really slowed us down a lot. But at the end, we just didn’t have any strength left.”

He told me about the chaos at the border – the criminality, the drugs, the fear of being murdered and never seen again.

“I’d never seen drugs before in Bolivia,” he said. “I’d have no idea where to buy any. But once I got to the U.S. border, I was surrounded by them.”

He said that not many people cross through the desert, because they can be spotted too easily. He crossed in an area where, if planes were to fly over, they wouldn’t be able to see them. Once they reached a designated place, cars came to pick them up. They got to Houston. From there, he paid an additional $500 to be taken to northern Virginia.

The crossing experience was the worst of his life. “No one told me how bad it is,” he said. “They all lie. But I would never tell anyone it’s easy. I tell them to think about it very carefully, that you can be killed and never heard from again and no one will know about it.”

I asked how one could be killed.

“The Mexicans are rough,” he said. “They will murder someone just to get the $200 they are carrying.”

I asked how people bring their families, how do they get their spouses and children through.

“I wouldn’t risk it for anything in the world,” he said.

He proudly told me he received his driver’s license in the U.S., though he didn’t learn any English in his two years. “In Maryland,” he said. “One of the few states that will give a license without proof of documentation.”

But he had a harder time getting a false social security number, and without that, he had a hard time getting work. I asked who the people employing the illegal immigrants were.

“They are all Latinos,” he said. “The Americans are too scared. The penalties are harsh. The government can even close down a business.”

“But the Latinos aren’t scared?” I asked.


He still has a Mexican visa, but has no plans to return. “One can make a living here if they are willing to work,” he said. “That was what I most learned in the U.S., was how to work hard.”

He returned home by air, and no one at the airport asked to see a visa or what he was doing in the U.S.

“I don’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t enforce more control over immigration,” he said. “Why don’t they just close the entire border? They certainly have the capacity to do it. But what the Latinos there are saying is that they are sending all their resources overseas, to Iraq, and that’s why the job opportunities aren’t as good now, and they aren’t able to take care of internal problems.”

He confirmed my impression that many of the Bolivians who migrate to Spain return, but not many return from the States. I found it a fascinating and a unique opportunity to talk to someone who gone through so much to get there, and had come home. I wonder if one reason for the low return rates is the difficult in getting there. If someone spends $2500 and risks his life to arrive in the U.S., I suppose he doesn’t want to risk it again by going home. Whereas, if there was a system in place by which one could come legally, workers could come and go based on their need to work and not remain only out of fear.

Monday, August 13, 2007

native daughter

I had my second female taxi driver today, and again, I was surprised. I mentioned my first encounter with a female driver to Maria and she agreed it was rare. However, she said it was more possible than in Santa Cruz.

I asked the young woman driving this evening how long she’d been in the line of work. She said she’d been driving a year and a half and hadn’t had any problems, as she only answered to calls. She said she made more than she could in other types of jobs and she liked the independence.

This afternoon I enjoyed lunch at Maria’s childhood home, where she grew up among four siblings. It’s only the third time I’ve been invited to a private home in Bolivia and I really appreciate such opportunities.

Maria and her family live on the very edge of town (“the last street in Cochabamba”) she said, up the side of one of the mountains. While it sounds far away, it’s only a ten minute ride to the center.

Maria is an intelligent, sophisticated, professional 29-year-old. In Santa Cruz, she lives the life of the upper class. She has her own car, dresses well, doesn’t hesitate to eat at expensive cafes or take taxis when necessary.

So I was surprised when we entered the iron gates into a property that was pleasant, but much simpler than what I’d expected. The living/dining room was almost open air. An open doorway led out to the kitchen and to the yard. Only the bedrooms had doors that could close, but they were all open, making the entire house united with its surroundings. I saw her father open a cabinet with a key and I wondered if they had to lock their belongings because of the lack of privacy.

The kitchen was painted a pleasant sky blue, the living room yellow and green. There were cracks in the ceiling and clothing hung outside on a line, strung alongside a simple wall built of red brick. I could see into one of the bedrooms, where a shelf above a simple bed held a collection of creams and ointments.

Maria shared and still shares a room with her sister Laura. She seemed to be the star of the family. One table had three pictures of her. A professionally taken photo, hanging over the doorway, showed all five children.

Maria’s father had shoulder length brown hair, a warm smile, and walked with a support under one arm. Her mother had similar hair to her husband and kept busy preparing the meal. Both Maria’s parents are proud Cochabambans.

“He always says he’s not a Bolivian, but a Cochabamban,” Maria’s mother said of her husband.

Maria’s older brother, Antonio, joined us for lunch. One year ago he began an advertising company with a partner and is in the process of developing it, focusing on providing quality client care.

Although all five children range in age from university students to early 30s, all but one (a 26-year-old rebellious actress) still live together with their parents.

Over chanca de pollo (the typical Cochabamban chicken soup – with chicken, potato, fava beans, onion and hot sauce), salad, bread and butter, and lasagna, we talked about our visit to the Palacio yesterday.

Everyone in the family seemed to know about Simon Patino, especially Maria’s father and brother. They recounted his life story, as well as the rumor that he’d made a pact with the devil, which allowed him to find mineral resources after everyone else had backed out. Maria’s father reminded us how they lacked modern equipment, and explored the mountains by simply cutting rocks.

Antonio was in the process of reading a book Maria wanted to borrow. It’s called The Return of the Idiot and he told us about the theory. It was written by the son of Vargas Llosa and two other co-authors and is a socio-economic analysis of Chavez, Castro and Morales and the things they are doing in Latin America. It’s a critical analysis and according to the authors, the governments are not based on a political or social idea, but on a personality cult. When the leaders go, so will their systems.

He told us how Chavez criticizes the U.S., but that much of the money he uses for his socialist projects comes from Venezuelan oil sales to the U.S. He said that Chavez helped to orchestrate the overthrow of former Bolivian president Goni.

“It’s not cheap to have so many people coming out and protesting,” said Maria’s father. “Their expenses needed to be covered and it was Chavez who financed this.”

Maria left for her flight back to Santa Cruz, dressed in a suit, with her hair neatly styled, her lips colored with lipstick, pulling a small wheeled suitcase behind her. I found it impressive to see this professional young woman emerging from her roots with such confidence. I think her parents have reason to be proud, for raising a close and loyal family, for preparing their children to meet the challenges of a new age successfully, and to move ahead in life.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

the rich and the poor

This morning I met my friend and colleague Maria. She works in Santa Cruz, but comes from Cochabamba. Her sister Laura, a student in enterprise administration, joined us as we went to visit the Palacio Portales, a home built for Bolivian legend Simon Patino.

Patino is a rare, inspiring Latin American story in that he was born into poverty, yet rose to become one of the richest people in the world in his time.

He was born in the village of Caraza (now called Santivanez) in the Cochabamba region in 1860. His father abandoned the family. As an adult, Patino adopted his mother’s last name and passed it down to his descendants. The name is legendary throughout Bolivia, and his father lost out on infamy through his irresponsibility.

At the age of 22 he began to work as a salesman for an important company in Oruro, a major mining center in Bolivia. He realized that the future of the country was in mining and he soon gave up his job, holding several mining positions before becoming an important employee at the Fricke mining company in Oruro.

After a meeting with the entrepreneur Jorge Oporto, he found the opportunity to run his own mine. Oporto owned the Juan del Valle mine, where rumors ran of a large tin seam. Many people had prospected it, but without success. Patino and Oporto joined together to form a company that would explore this mine.

After two years, with nothing to show, Oporto moved on. Patino continued on. He and his wife lived in the harsh, high altitude conditions of the mountains. Only after the age of 40 did he finally strike tin. The mine became the largest in the country and he the most important tin baron in Bolivia, as well as one of the world’s richest men.

Due to his humble beginnings, he was always conscious of his role in helping his co-nationals. In 1931 he founded the Simon Patino University Foundation in La Paz in order to train local intellectuals and reduce dependence on foreign specialists. He built baths and showers at the Palacio Portales for the common people to use, and the library now housed by the Palacio is the best public library in Cochabamba.

He founded the Banco Mercantil, today one of the leading Bolivian banks, and began to invest in mining operations overseas. By the late 1930s his foundries process over 60% of world tin deposits.

He moved to France in 1912, later to New York, and then Argentina. He was never able to return to Bolivia because of the altitude. In 1924, during a visit to Bolivia, he suffered a serious heart attack.

He built the Palacio as a family residence. It was built between 1915 and 1927. But by the time it was finished, he’d already suffered his heart attack and couldn’t return to Bolivia. His family didn’t want to be there without him, so for several decades it remained empty, until his descendants donated it for use as a cultural center.

The palace, designed by French architect Eugene Bliault, assisted by 40 artisans, is an impressive eclectic structure, made largely of marble and timber. As we walked through the elegant rooms, the guide pointed out to us the chandelier brought from Italy, the damask imported from Malaysia, the curtains with his wife’s initials made in France, the wood brought from Lebanon, and the geometric wooden parquet patterns on the floor of each room. We walked from the dining room, which had a hand-made French tapestry, a marble fireplace, and a ceiling fresco of nymphs into the billiard room – an Arabic room lined with mosaiced arches that were replicas of the Spanish Alhambra.

“I feel like I’m in Europe,” Maria said. She’d last visited the palace as a 7-year-old and remembered feeling awed by her surroundings. She was curious to see whether she’d still be impressed as an adult. She was.

After looking at a photo exhibit in the exhibition gallery and strolling around the Japanese-designed gardens, we took a taxi to the center of town. There, they showed me the 1571 neoclassical cathedral church and the central plaza. The church was nice, but not as impressive as the Jesuit missions I recently saw. It’s tough to beat those. I liked the plaza, where children extended their hands, filled with seed, to the pigeons, vendors sold fresh-squeezed orange juice, cotton candy, and balloons, fountains tinkled, and people rested on shaded benches.

We had lunch at a popular local restaurant, La Estancia. It was filled with families, enjoying their Sunday lunch today, like in Santa Cruz. Its specialty is meat and fish, but it also had a great salad bar, which I loved since I find it challenging to get enough vegetables in Santa Cruz.

I then walked with them to the local supermarket, where they purchased ingredients for their dinner that evening.

I noticed a lot of very poor people, mostly women and children, in indigenous dress, begging along the roads. They come from Potosi.

“They come for a couple of months, until they get enough money to buy seeds and whatever else they need. Then they return home,” Maria told me. “They come to Santa Cruz as well, but there are more in Cochabamba.”

“Why are there mostly women and children?”

“Because it’s more effective to collect money that way. Sometimes the children are not even theirs. They just take some children along so that people will feel more sorry for them.”

These people truly are poor, and I try to give to them, but I felt a bit overwhelmed today. I passed them too often and didn’t always have change handy.

In my very short time here, I’ve had the impression that while security is still an issue, there is more integration between the classes here than in Santa Cruz. When I went out for dinner last night, many children came into the restaurant to sell gum and cigarettes. While I saw a clear difference between the rich and poor, their interactions seemed to be more friendly, more respectable, more accepting of each other. In Santa Cruz, I feel more distrust, fear and resentment between the classes, and not much interaction. I asked Maria whether this impression had any validity.

“Yes,” she said. “There is a much larger middle class here.”

Having that larger mass in the middle, rather than the stark divisions between rich and poor, seems to facilitate interaction. In my opinion, this makes the atmosphere more pleasant.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I arrived yesterday morning in Cochabamba, the city in the middle of La Paz and Santa Cruz. I took AeroSur for the 30 minute flight. Despite the short distance, we had an almost full 727 plane, staffed by professionally dressed and polite employees who served us a snack and a drink. My last two trips on South American airlines, Taca and AeroSur, have shown a better quality flight experience than what I see on U.S. airliners lately. I wonder if the high cost of salaries in the U.S. makes airlines cut every other expense possible. Whereas here, even though the flight only cost $50, I didn’t feel the company was cutting corners to save money, but providing a good service for the price.

From the window of the airline, I could see a dry, brown mountainous landscape. The city seemed to similarly lack color – a conglomeration of buildings of various designs and sizes – mostly brown, grey or insipid.

This impression was confirmed during the taxi ride to the hotel. We drove along a rubbly canal almost devoid of water. The landscape was a pale, dusty brown, with lots of beige rocks scattered about as well as a proliferance of large, mangy brown and black dogs. I breathed in the smell of sewers and wondered where the beautiful, mountainous city my colleagues had told me about was.

The driver told me it’s now fall, and for that reason it’s very dry. “By September it will be green again,” he said.

The taxi was much nicer than the taxis in Santa Cruz, and cheaper. Rides in town run about 50 cents. I asked the driver why.

“In Santa Cruz, people work a lot, so they buy old cars that will last. But here, people don’t want to go about in old cars. They want more luxury.”

Not all taxis are that way. Later in the day, I rode in vehicles that I doubted could make it up the hill to my hotel, or with a chassis that seemed to be centimeters from the street below. But the feeling of life being a bit more developed here, of a slightly more advanced quality, remained.

I’m staying in Hotel La Colonia. It advertises itself as a five-star hotel. I’m not sure how the star system here works. It doesn’t seem to correspond to the international system. But while it might not be a five-star hotel on a world scale, it’s definitely a very nice and comfortable place, with wood paneling, a swimming pool, very nice bathtub and shower, and refrigerator. It attracts a variety of small, tropical birds to its grounds, which are pleasant to watch pecking through the grass in the morning.

I spent the day at the office and was able to get a glimpse of the town. The main streets are nicely maintained. A variety of trees line the medians – many of which sprout colored flowers, even in this dry season. I could see a giant, white Christ statue on a hill, and was told it flashes various colors in the evening. We had lunch at La Casa de Campo, a popular place decorated in local style and serving huge portions of Cochabamban food.

I immediately noticed the improved quality of food – from my first bite of bread. I realized that the reason Santa Cruz food doesn’t grab me is that it is bland – it doesn’t use much of anything – salt, sugar, or spices. This includes breads and cakes, as well as salads, soups and everything else. Grilled meat is the specialty, and that doesn’t need much in terms of seasonings.

But here, the bread had taste, the hot sauce was actually spicy hot, and the sweets use sugar. “You’ll probably gain a couple of kilos here,” my colleague Celia told me. Until recently, at work, all employees were served a complete meal, at the employer’s expense, for the late afternoon snack. This was after they’d already had a complete meal at lunchtime. I’m hoping to avoid substantial weight gain, but will definitely enjoy the culinary adventure.

I visited the Cochabamba branch of my Santa Cruz health club, Premier Fitness, and was amazed by the five-story complex – complete with cardiovascular equipment, weights, all kinds of classes, and even an internet terminal. It was full of people – a sign of the middle to upper class here. From what I’ve heard, Cochabamba was the leading center for industry and finance in the country. But due to continued protests, road blockages and political problems, companies began to move to Santa Cruz. And Santa Cruz has now overcome Cochabamba in commercial importance.

I also noticed what seems to be a greater gender equality. For the first time ever in Bolivia, a female taxi driver picked me up. Her son crawled around in the passenger seat, allowing her to combine work with childcare.

I asked why there weren’t more women drivers. “I suppose not many of them like it,” she said.

“Had she had any problems with crime?”

“Thank God, no.” She works for a radio-mobile cab company, and only takes calls that come through the call center. She doesn’t pick up random people off the street, which makes the work a bit more secure. I also saw a female security guard in a bank – another rare sight.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Chilean infidelity and Latina domestics

The local paper reported that despite a fire that took firefighters two hours to put out, no police or government agency has initiated any investigation into who started the fire. Strange.

There was an interesting tidbit in the paper that reported on the Chilean divorce law. Chile has permitted divorce only since November 2004. At that time, it was the only Western country, that didn’t allow divorce.

But the civil code, article 128, establishes a difference between men and women in their right to remarry after a divorce. While men can remarry immediately, women must wait 270 days. And she can’t remarry at all if she’s pregnant. Why? In order to avoid confusion about paternity should a child be born in this period. The supposition is that if a child is born in the nine months after the divorce, it’s the child of the ex-husband.

Wow, what suppositions that makes about women’s fidelity during marriage. At the same time, I’m reading a book about Chile by Isabel Allende, Mi Pais Inventado, in which she claims that 58% of Chilean women are unfaithful in marriage. In a lecture I heard by Princeton biotechnologist Lee Silver, he told the audience that five percent of the people in the auditorium have biological fathers different than those they assume.

Would be nice if the most modern country in South America, which has a female president, could recognize paternity tests over marital status, as the most effective means of determining fatherhood.

Another article in El Deber writes about a study of Latin American women, in which it was found that half of Latina women, aged 20-24 work full-time in unpaid domestic duties. At least 50% of women over age 15 don’t have their own income, compared to 20% of men. And the female population works an average of 72 hours a week, within and outside the home, paid or unpaid, compared with the 48 hours the countries in the region have identified as the maximum in their labor codes.

The report, emitted by the Comision Economic para America Latina (Cepal) cites growing tensions, as women continue to have to take responsibility for the home work, even when working outside the home. It calls for public policies that incentive shared duties.

It’s no surprise, in these circumstances, that more Latina women emigrate than men. The distribution by country is shockingly skewed in favor of the United States. Between 2000 and 2007, the article lists the numbers of emigrants heading to the following destinations:

U.S. 20,500,000
Spain 1,600,000
Other OECD countries 800,000
Canada 600,000
UK 300,000
Holland 300,000

Remittances sent back to Latin America have grown from $20.2 million in 2001 to $62.3 in 2006.

I see the need for the low-end labor in many of these countries. And it’s a good opportunity for hard-working but disadvantaged people to try to get a leg up and help their families. The money sent back, just like the money the Kyrgyz send back from Russia, makes a huge difference to those left behind.

But the question is whether they ever go home. My impression is that most people in Bolivia who go to Spain intend to stay a few years, then return. Of course some stay. But usually a worker will go alone, without their family. And the draw of the family will eventually bring them back. I get a different sense in the U.S., that after a certain time in the country, people feel the right to stay. This is complicated by the children they bear on American soil having U.S. citizenship.

When the U.S. has 13 times more emigrants than the next country (and in Spanish, they actually speak Spanish), it’s a sign of the situation being out of control. Twenty million people arriving in a period of seven years, generally poor and without a knowledge of the country’s official language, seems like too much to be able to successfully integrate. They don’t contribute to taxes (though that’s a failure of the legal and immigration system rather than the immigrants themselves), yet have access to medical, educational and other public services. The current situation is unsustainable. Something needs to be done, to both formalize those who can and should stay, and to limit the numbers in the future, giving preference to those whose skills are needed in the economy.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Crazy to sell coca

Those coca leaf vendors I saw yesterday ended up causing quite a havoc. On the front page of today’s El Deber newspaper is a photo of a wildfire set by the protestors. They tried to take over the offices of Digeco, The Coca Leaf Control Office, but were repelled by police tear gas. When they didn’t get the response they wanted from government leaders, they blocked the road leading to the airport at the peak time for traffic headed to the airport. Again, they were tear gassed. Two of them set fire to the dry, scrubby area leading to the airport. When the firefighters arrived, the protestors threw rocks at them and hit them.

The coca leaf vendors are upset about rules that will put them under the control of the Digeco office if they sell more than 500 pounds of coca leaves a month. The protestors say that 12,000 families in Santa Cruz live off the sale of coca leaf and that the majority of that distributed by the producers goes to illegal purposes. They claim that women, children and the elderly weren’t respected in the repression of their protests. It seems to me like the aggressive men amongst them used the women, children and elderly as shields.

This evening I very nearly escaped a freak accident. I was in my room, preparing my suitcase for a trip to Cochabamba tomorrow. At one point, I decided to take a rest. I sat on my bed and was listening to a broadcast from This American Life.

Suddenly, the light in my room intensified and I heard a loud crash. The glass covering over the light bulb on my ceiling had suddenly dislodged and fallen to the floor, breaking into many shards. It landed right by my suitcase. Had I still been packing, the hot projectile could well have landed right on my head.

There was no movement or anything to provoke the sudden fall. Maybe they didn’t screw it on properly. Or my apartment mate thought it overheated. As I picked up the shards, it felt like a low quality product to me. I suggested maybe it was just poor quality.

“That’s possible,” Renata said. “They are always looking for the cheapest things without realizing that by doing so, they can be creating a serious danger.”

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

a gathering of the people

This afternoon I was sitting in a coffee shop when I suddenly saw blocks and blocks of average-looking people, probably indigenous, walking down the Avanza, a main street heading north toward the airport. I didn’t know what they were marching for. I couldn’t see any signs clearly, and I’ve learned better than to approach for pictures. They appeared pretty normal and peaceful, but every so often they let off loud, smoky firecrackers, which scare me, because I can’t tell if they are gunshots or an explosion. Many walked with umbrellas, others had shawls. Some held the hands of small children.

Amidst the bangs and the booms, the other people continued on with their lives. The car attendants guided cars into parking spots and provided quality washes while the patron was away, in return for a better tip. Upperclass patrons drank coffee and fruit shakes at The Alexander Café, many taking advantage of the free wireless with their notebook computers. The traffic was blocked on the protestor’s side of the road, but continued going the other way.

I was impressed that the protestors could attract so many people, but I didn’t think they did a very good job at carrying signs, or otherwise making it clear what they were marching for. It’s almost as though they just want to take a group walk through town, making a little noise along the way.

Within several minutes, traffic had resumed and except for the distant bangs, it was almost as though they’d never passed.

Later, when I took a taxi down the Avanza, we could see them up ahead. They had walked several kilometers and were blocking the road, a little further on from where I was headed. The taxi driver told me the are entrepreneurs who work as distributors of coca leaves – the raw plant that cocaine is derived from, but is a common thing to chew on here. I thought it was part of an anti-drug effort. But the driver said no, just that the coca farmers will now sell their products directly instead of through these people. These people aren’t going to be able to renew their licenses. I don’t understand the details, but they were clearly unhappy about this.

Yesterday a large military parade took place in Santa Cruz. There was a lot of contention surrounding the parade, because the President Evo Morales came to town for it, and because he combined it with a march of indigenous people. The government paid to bus in indigenous people just to participate in the march.

Some in Santa Cruz were going to declare a day of civil disobedience in protest. But in the end they decided not to and everything went fine. People were wary none the less though. Luis and his family didn’t travel over the holiday weekend, for fear of a road blockage. A taxi driver told me that the cambas (the locals from the east) are afraid of the President, and the President is afraid of them.

I didn’t understand the relation between the indigenous people and the military parade. In the evening, I had a long and illuminating talk with my roommate Renata, a 30-year-old professional from La Paz. She is one of the only people I know here who seem to support some of the President’s policies. She makes a special effort to buy only Bolivian manufactured clothing, to support the local industry and she told me Evo won the election in Santa Cruz as well, regardless of how people talk about him.

She said that the indigenous people were subject to severe racism over a long period of time, that in the past they weren’t even allowed to attend a military school. So that is why he asked the indigenous people to march as well, to celebrate their progress.

As our conversation continued, Renata lost her supportive posture and began to criticize the government more. She told me that Evo brought into power those like him, who are uneducated, indigenous, and full of resentment of how they’ve been treated in the past. But instead of trying to give opportunities to those who faced discrimination in the past, they want to punish the others.

Renata said that in La Paz, the government officials frequently criticize those who live in the Sur, which I gather is an upper-class area.

“They act like it’s all privileged people and foreigners, but I live in the Sur. They don’t recognize that it possible for a middle-class family to live there, to want to live there in order to give their children better opportunities,” she said.

She told me that the emphasis on clothing has reached such an extreme that people are judged based on their dress rather than their skin color. “Because we all come from mixed blood, it’s hard to tell who is really indigenous and who’s not. You can’t look at one person and say they are more Bolivian than another, because we are all mixed. So they look at dress. They hate suits and ties, because they see them as symbols of capitalism. And if a group of peasants is marching in town, they can cut off the tie of someone passing by. They can get quite unruly when together as a group.”

She said she’s disappointed that Evo did as all the others did and brought his own people into office. “These are people who are uncompletely uneducated and who know nothing. They want to make Quechua the first language of study, and only after that, English. I have friends who know a lot more and can’t find a job. And I see these people occupying high office and it’s shameful.”

She said people are worried about Evo making the country Communist and she worries about the regions fighting amongst themselves. Because of these concerns, she says, a lot of people are leaving.

Evo only has two years left in office, but she doesn’t see a possible opposition leader. “We have no leaders,” she said. “One needs to be trained in how to be a leader and we don’t have the environment here for that. Evo himself is a product of an indigenous leadership training program sponsored by UNITAS. And one needs to have their group, the people who will support them.

“At the time of the last election, we had the choice – to vote for how things had always been, or to vote for a change. Evo was the only one who offered a chance. And so many people decided to try for a change, even though they weren’t sure what they were going to get. Because they thought it would be better than continuing in the same path.”

She’s an interesting person – intelligent, passionate, cultured, open to new ideas. She’s hesitant to marry because she doesn’t want to give up her independent life. She is a leader at work and works hard, but also likes to party. I once left for the airport at 5 a.m. and tripped over her passed out in front of the front door. She’s so focused on her own success and advancement that she didn’t even notice the paucity of women in middle and upper management in the institution until I pointed it out to her. Unfortunately she’ll be going back to La Paz later this week. I think I could learn a lot from her.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Three more Mission churches

My hotel helped me to hire a taxi for the day. With the driver, Rober, we made a loop of the three mission churches in the areas outside San Ignacio – San Miguel, San Rafael and Santa Ana.

We headed for San Miguel first, so that I could catch a group playing flute music as part of the Seasonal Concerts of Chiquitos Mission Music. I’d read these places were remote and that the roads were bad, but it was worse than I thought. The roads were hot, dusty, red, and usually barren of civilization. We drove through miles and miles of scrub – the dry red, green and pale gold landscape colored only by a tree that had bright yellow flowers.

We passed an occasional remote community, haciendas with cheerful names like Gloria, posted over dry, colorless brush, and plenty of cows with slack throats that sagged as they walked. When we’d reach a town, it seemed a miracle, as though civilization didn’t belong there. But as I suppose should be expected, the towns weren’t highly civilized.

Our first stop, San Miguel, was actually the largest of the three. It had a plaza with some shops and cafes, a market area that sold fresh fruit and vegetables, and where kids gathered to play foozball, and an organized tourist office that sold carved wooden products to visitors and promoted their region.

Yet I struggled to find a bottle of water. When I finally find a bottle and gratefully bought it, I noticed there was sediment floating in the bottle. And then I noticed the seal was broken. Someone had probably collected the bottle and filled it with whatever water they could find. So I had to abandon that and remain with a dust-filled mouth a while later.

The church was pretty, but the sight of a man peeing off the side of the entrance didn’t make a very good impression. I caught the end of a mass, which attracted a sizeable crowd, then stayed for the flute concert. Though the concert began right after mass and was free, not many of the locals stayed to listen.

San Rafael was a smaller and more dead town – my least favorite of the three. Skinny, runny-nosed children begged there as they didn’t anyone else. There wasn’t much food selection and I had an unimpressive lunch of a chicken drumstick, cold rice and chopped tomatoes and onions of questionable sanitary quality. The tablecloths were dirty and disheveled and I had the sense that people there just didn’t take care of things very well. That maybe they were tired, maybe they’d given up, maybe they were lazy, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of pride in presenting themselves or their properties well.

We picked up a passenger there, a former schoolmate of Rober’s. He’s a truck driver and last week his truck tipped off while crossing a bridge, fully loaded with wood. I didn’t understand the details, if his hand was crushed or pierced by the raw wood, but his hand was injured and he wanted to return to San Ignacio for further treatment. So we gave him a lift.

Our last stop, Santa Ana, was the smallest village – with only 2,000 inhabitants in the entire community (including outlying areas). It looked dead – the central square a large plot of grass, and barely any people around at all. The only activity seemed to be at the small and attractive pension and restaurant Tacu, painted an attractive yellow that matched the church. The church was impressive in its simplicity though with a palm roof and an earthen floor. More than any other of the Mission churches, the Santa Ana church retains the most original architecture from colonial times. Six twisted columns stand in front of it, looking like large wooden candlesticks. The friendly keeper of the church gave us a complete tour, including peeks at the effective rat traps he’d installed and a rare organ, the last one survives from the time of colonial Jesuit Martin Schmidt.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

San Ignacio de Velasco

Last night I took an all-night bus on the 11 hour journey to San Ignacio de Velasco, the northernmost town of the Jesuit Misión Circuit. I went alone, and with no hotel reservations. I felt a bit nervous about taking off on my own, especially since I heard that much of the road was unpaved and who knew what I’d find when I arrived. However, all went well. Though I’d prefer to have some company, I’m enjoying my adventure so far.

The bus, a two-story Jenecheru bus-cama, was extremely comfortable, like a business-class of buses. The seats are wide, recline so far back one is almost horizontal, and have a leg rest. There is even enough room to curl up. The most prepared came with blankets, which probably made for a cozy ride. But even without, it was possible to get a decent amount of sleep. I rode next to a Brazilian woman with a three-month-old baby.

Though the majority of the ride was in the dark, by moonlight I could see the desolation. After we passed San Javier, it was almost nothing but vast empty plains, the word pampas comes to mind – covered by a variety of grasses and brushes, small, bare, spindly trees, and occasionally, swamps. Every so often, a thatched hut would come into view. But that was it.

I could feel the bump when we descended from the pavement onto the dirt road. But it wasn’t uncomfortably bumpy. And our driver seemed to be especially careful, which I appreciated.

When light appeared, around 6 a.m., I could see the same things. Only at this time, I also saw the bright red dust of the road, the red light that rose behind the plains and then turned into blue sky, and the fine patterns of the bare branches.

San Ignacio seemed to appear out of nowhere. All of a sudden we stopped, and people began to disembark. We were in the middle of a dusty, red dirt road, a chilly wind blowing, despite the sunny sky.

I found it easier to arrive at 7 a.m., then at 1 a.m., such as I arrived in San Javier. I rolled my suitcase the several blocks to the plaza, then looked at two hotels. I chose the Hotel San Ignacio. It’s a very comfortable place in a historic building, remodeled just a year and a half ago. I have a high wooden ceiling, a tile floor, large wood-paneled windows, wooden furniture that probably comes from some of the same talented artists that carve the pillars in front of buildings here, a TV, phone and refrigerator.

After taking a nap, I strolled around town. The central few blocks are paved, but the rest of the roads are loose, ochre dust. It’s one of the largest towns in Chiquitania, with a population of about 35,000. But it still retains a small-town feel. I walked just a few blocks away from the plaza, to a man-made lagoon, and found myself alone in nature, with good opportunities for birdwatching.

Carved wooden crosses have been placed in several intersections. The central plaza is a large, spacious square, dense with greenery and decorated with statues and benches. The buildings are mostly one and two story, supported by carved wooden columns and topped with roofs of curved red tile. Motorcycles flit around town, their low roars a constant background noise, and bicycles are common.

I found a Brazilian restaurant where I enjoyed a surprisingly healthy lunch buffet of beans, rice and salad. The owner, who is from Brazil, said there aren’t so many Brazilians now, but more are coming to the area. Many, like him, are coming because it’s much easier to start a business in Bolivia. In Brazil, he said, there are a lot of requirements and taxes that serve as barriers. Others, he said, come to escape something they’ve done in Brazil. I’m not so sure the second group is very good for Bolivia, but I don’t know how they are enforcing migration rules.

I strolled through the market area, where I saw homemade dairy products, cell phones, pirated DVDs, cheap shoes, and rich-smelling leather products from Brazil for sale. I stopped in the church, the largest of the Jesuit mission churches, and caught part of a confirmation-preparation class for local youth. The church is the largest of the Jesuit Mission churches. If I hadn’t seen San Javier first, I would have been more impressed. The church is beautiful, wide, open-aired, and full of carvings. But the altar seemed a bit gaudy in its bright goldness. And unlike the other mission churches, which have been restored, this one was created anew. The original, built in 1748, was destroyed 200 years later, then rebuilt from scratch. Perhaps for that reason it seems to lack a bit of the historical sense I felt in San Javier.

In the evening, I attended a concert in the church. Both the local San Ignacio choir and orchestra and the Cochabamba symphony orchestra performed. I had the chance to speak with the impressive woman who directs the local musical group, as well as to talk to a 16-year-old violinist. They performed as part of Seasonal Concerts of Chiquitos Missional Music, a series to help draw tourists to the region. The church was about half-full of attendees for the free concert. The music was beautiful, and it’s amazing to hear it in such an atmosphere. But it didn’t captivate me quite as much as the practice session I happened to come across accidentally in San Javier, where the sounds of Baroque music flowed out of a side-building window, and I sat on the grass, a secret absorber of the sweet sounds.

The people here are uniformly friendly and helpful. I always feel much better upon exiting Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz feels too much like a fight to me, one always has to be on guard. Thugs are unable to hide for long in a small, isolated community such as this. Here I can stroll at leisure and comfortably, I can approach anyone and speak to them, I feel free to explore and to be myself.